“We go through different pairs of words, but for me at the moment I think of it as messy R&B”, says Be Good singer Ash, when I ask how they define their music. “Sex-pop” is Charlie’s alternative, “but I don’t think you can really get away with that in media terms”. Well perhaps not, but thankfully student media is hardly real ‘media’, anyhow.
Fresh-faced but with a hint of Cowley scruff, the pair seem just as relaxed and open in front of me now as they did performing under the hazy lights of The Bullingdon a couple of weeks back. Supporting C Duncan, they charmed the crowd with an enigmatic mix of soulful vocals, synthy grooves, and ‘wonky’ guitars. They stood out from the usual fare of opening acts (that is to say, vaguely pleasant, but ultimately miss-able), and their short set was such an unexpected treat that I decided to find out more. Accordingly, I found myself on a Wednesday evening crammed into a secluded booth in a crowded pub, talking music with two of the band members, Ash and Charlie.
One thing that struck me about their performance was how distinctive a sound they created, interweaving vibrant threads of soul, R&B, indie rock, and electro-folk, but without getting repetitive. In conversation with the band, the subject of authenticity crops up often. When it comes to their own individual listening habits, there’s a sort of deliberate R&B-embargo going on. Ash explains, saying: “I’m sort of worried about listening too much to stuff that’s similar to what we play, because I’m worried that we’ll end up sponging off too much of that style, regurgitating R&B tropes. I often wonder what kind of music we’d make if we’d never heard music before”. Paul Simon and Cass McCombs surprisingly are credited as major musical influences (“Paul Simon, he combines rock with gospel, soul, jazz… that’s one of the main constants”).
It didn’t necessarily come easily, though: Oxford-natives Charlie and Ash describe their creative evolution as following a “weird trajectory”. During their schooldays Charlie played drums in “one of Ash’s bands”, and when I ask about this musical background, Ash tells me that his consistent drive to form bands over the years was “out of compulsion rather than ambition”. Be Good originated when the pair reunited a few years ago, initially producing understated soundscapes that combined folk music with doo-wop harmonies. Charlie confesses that “even when we’d only been doing that for a few months, it kind of felt like we wanted to move on”. Compared to their previous work, they both admit that straying into R&B “feels a bit like uncomfortable territory”, but this seems to excite rather than daunt them.
While Be Good are hesitant to call themselves ‘unique’, theirs isn’t a well-worn path in Oxford. They don’t really seem to care for clichés: One of the most common gripes among those who dislike R&B is that that the genre is ‘un-intellectual’ or ‘shallow’ (a cursory glance at the lyrics to The Weeknd’s recent single ‘Starboy’ should explain some of this). There are many indications that Be Good don’t exactly fit this mould, but a particular revelation is that the band name itself is an allusion to the American scientist John B Goodenough, a “personal hero” of the singer.
As we go on, the conversation turns towards Ash’s lyrics. Frank and personal, they lean poetic at times but avoid pretension. He explains to me that their current tracks explore relationships through the lens of myopic adolescent emotion: “I find it interesting that being an adolescent in suburbia… things happen, very inconsequential events, but in your mind because of the small place and your age it elevates them into some kind of life-changing experience, and that small town can be your entire world, and so that was interesting to have as a vague mood behind the songs”. Charlie adds wryly: “There is a sense of slightly delayed misspent youth”. They create an atmosphere of familiarity and vulnerability within their songs; ‘Nightbus’ captures all the fluff and giddiness of teenage love (“Let’s take the nightbus, baby / Take the top deck with me /… Make faces at the window like it was a two-way mirror”), while ‘God of Nowhere’ looks back on a first meeting with palpable nostalgia.
Listening to their mine of soon-to-be-released singles, you get a promising sense that Be Good are on the verge of something: “Now more than ever it feels like this could be something more people want to hear…but I don’t think we’re very conscious of that when we’re doing it”. Top songs to look out for from Be Good in the coming weeks are ‘Nightbus’ and ‘It’s Cool But It Ain’t You’.